The summer after eighth grade arrives (summer 1924), and Richard must once again look for full-time work. He works for a woman named Mrs. Bibbs, doing odd jobs, and asks if her husband, who is foreman at a sawmill, can get him work there. But after Richard visits and is startled by the heavy lifting, the buzz of the machines, and the dangerous nature of the work, he decides to find something else. One afternoon, he is walking down the street and runs into a friend from school, Ned Greenley. Ned's brother Bob has been killed recently by angry whites who believed that Bob (an employee at a local hotel) slept with a white prostitute. Richard is so rattled by this news, and by the violence with which whites “deal with” African Americans, that he takes a day off from his job search, and ruminates alone on his porch.
One of the greatest fears in the South was the “mixing” of races, or the idea that African Americans and whites could engage in sexual activity and potentially produce offspring. Of course, the reader also knows that Wright himself is of mixed Native American, European, and African descent, meaning that, at some point in the not-so-distant past, there was exactly this kind of mixing occurring in his family. But another tenet of Southern culture was the belief that whites and blacks would never socialize, despite overwhelming evidence that this did happen a great deal across the region.
Richard discovers that his Uncle Tom has been keeping all his children away from Richard, since Tom still fears that Richard is violent and unhinged (from the episode, several years back, in which Richard defended himself with razors). Richard begins his ninth grade school year, again working for Mrs. Bibbs, and vows to leave Jackson at the end of the year. His brother returns to Jackson to visit from Chicago, where he has moved (although Richard first reports this move here). Richard realizes that his family members love and respect his brother more than Richard, and wonders how he, too, can flee to the north and start his own life.
Richard’s relationship with his brother is not so much strained as nonexistent at this point in the narrative. When his brother returns from his stay in the north, Richard finds that the two have relatively little to talk about, and that the family appears to favor Richard’s brother more highly because he has escaped the South. But when Richard voices this same desire, to leave and go north, the family does not appear to support his plan, nor his interests in becoming a writer.
Richard does well in school, regardless, and is named valedictorian of his ninth-grade class. He also helps the teacher to teach the class from time to time, an honor conferred only on the best students. He is selected to give a speech at the graduation ceremony, and soon afterward is called into the principal’s office, where the principal gives him an “official” speech Richard is to read. Richard, who has written his own speech, is offended that the principal would attempt to dictate his remarks, but the principal notes that the graduation will be open to African American and white families, and Richard, he claims, does not know enough to be able to speak effectively to both groups.
The principal does not feel that Richard is capable of speaking to a mixed audience—perhaps he worries that Richard will say something undiplomatic regarding the fraught racial politics of the region.
But Richard continues, stubbornly, to want to read his own speech, even after Tom tells him (after having read both speeches) that the principal’s is more polished. Richard borrows money from Mrs. Bibbs, buys a suit (his first), and delivers his own speech, which is received mostly with silent indifference by the audience. The principal has indicated that Richard’s stubbornness will likely cost him a teaching job in the school district, despite Richard’s high grades, but Richard believes he has done the right thing, reading his own remarks in the face of overwhelming pressure to conform to the school’s policies.
Richard already seems to know that a job in the South, teaching English literature in Jackson’s segregated schools, would be a kind of steady profession but also an acknowledgment that his life cannot transcend its origins. Richard is willing to risk his livelihood for his own ideals, and it is this daring that both puts him at odds with white southern society at various times, but also that ultimately allows him to escape that society and move north to Chicago.